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Children’s Learning and Challenges of English Spelling

English spelling is a complex and challenging area for children learning to spell. Several factors account for this, including how the nature of spelling is at once visual and linguistic, which provides a deep contradiction, as well as the cognitive demands it places upon the learner. This essay examines these challenges through three cases that clarify how the children are expected to respond or react to spelling demands in English. This essay intends to articulate that spelling is quite a demanding task, as it requires prior knowledge about language, grammar and meaning, and learners may respond differently towards such challenges. This essay will start by explaining the challenge of spelling as a problem of visuals, move to the challenge of spelling as an issue of linguistics and end by considering the challenge of spelling as an issue of cognitive. These discussions are aimed at providing an in-depth view of the major challenges of English spelling that would provide a fundamental base for offering insights into how spelling should be taught or learned in how it should be taught or learned effectively.

The problem with spelling as a visual matter is that these letters turn into pictures in the child’s mind, which then associate with those objects or concepts he or she knows. This is because young children barely comprehend the written form of language, yet only some phonetic rules have been taught at that age. In the example given, Barney had assumed that the letter ‘B’ is a picture of Barney and, therefore, should have ‘features of Barney’ (Kress, 2005: 40). How the boy identified the letter on his name was by position and increments of size and must look like it. Barney’s perception is typical of how children perceive letters like pictures, meaning they try to interpret them in ways related to something, such as images or notions with which the child is quite familiar.

However, this tendency often leads to confusion and wrong associations because not all letters have an image-like representation that could inform their meaning. The representation of letters tends to be relative to each child’s experience and environment, hence the possibility of character misidentification due to incompleteness of experience or interpretation (Elce et al., 2021: 502). For instance, this is something that would be very hard, if not impossible, for the tiny tots because differentiating closely related words such as ‘sit’ and ‘set’ or ‘was’ and ‘saw’ are hardly decipherable since they do not appear dissimilar because the letters have. This may cause the misspelling of words and misuse of words in sentences, which, if unchecked or not arrested, will be a common practice. Thus, students should learn proper phonetics and spelling from an early stage.

Spelling, as one of the aspects of linguistics, has several challenges, especially in English, because it is not a truly phonetic language. Other languages like Italian have graphemes representing the phonemes consistently and with few exceptions, if any at all. Besides, its vocabulary has been highly influenced by various languages such as Latin, French, Greek and Chinese, whose languages depend on characters of ideograph that represent meaning and sound simultaneously or distinctly. Because English has been borrowed from these different languages, their respective words, pronunciation, spelling, and context need a specific kind of education, experience, and exposure. For example, the character tree in Chinese is ideophonetic, combining both meaning and sound constituents to suggest a metaphorical sense of the word (Kress, 2005: 132). The very nature of the specific writing system may need help from English learners, who are usually used to words and spellings that, in many cases, are more direct and phonetic.

Interference of other languages in English spelling may bring about internal inconsistencies, making the learning experience relatively hard. This is because such has influenced the adoption of etymological spelling, where the words are spelt as close as possible to their spelling source language. However, this naturally leads to inconsistencies that need clarification for the learners, making learning the language difficult. For example, the two characters of word reading show how this word in the English language has adapted different meanings than the Chinese ones with which they were created. In addition, some Latin or Greek words inculcated into the English language to express technical and abstract ideas are hard; thus, learners need to understand the morphemes derived from Greek or Latin (Oplinger, 2020). The degree of compounding in these spellings may affect mastery of reading, writing, and spelling English words. From this view, it is mandatory to generate better teaching methods and resources to help learners manage these inconsistencies and tackle them during spelling or reading of words.

The complexity of the cognitive process is what makes spelling difficult and not just a simple act of transliteration. Moreover, with spelling, one needs to understand not only the sounds expressed by letters and compounds of letters but also knowledge of a word’s visual and grammatical building (Edwards, Viv and Corson, 2013). In other words, for correct spelling to be accomplished, a person must know the meaning words denote and how they are structured grammatically and spelt visually. For instance, if a person spells the word ‘where’ like ‘spost’, he reveals his ignorance of the structure of words. The inaccuracy, as well as the inefficiency of spellings, can have a great effect on communication and expression.

On the other hand, the accuracy and efficiency of spelling also depend on the ability of a human to correctly “visualize” the words, being based on the proper exposure to the written language. Indeed, as exemplification in the second example of the given article, informed guesses on spellings like “longest” and “highest” here emerge from visual framing besides establishing a word’s grammatical function (Kress, 2005: 190). Hence, preliminary knowledge of the language would become necessary to ensure words are spelt correctly and efficiently. However, it is observed that early attempts at spelling reveal children’s cognitive prowess in extracting meaning from abstract symbols (Nevin, 2020: 384). So, even with spelling presenting problems in certain cases, understanding its intricacy and relation to language, grammar, and meaning would enhance literacy.

In conclusion, English spelling is a complicated area depending on the prior knowledge of the language, grammar, and meaning. Learners may respond differently to these challenges, including visual, linguistic and cognitive approaches. For such a process to be effective in either learning or teaching spelling, one needs to come up with effective methods and resources which would take on board the difficulties and improve learners’ understanding of language’s visual and grammatical structure. Schools should ensure that the learners are well afforded basic education that will assist them in navigating their way through inconsistencies occasioned by other languages’ influence and developing spelling habits that will be accurate and economical. First and foremost, there needs to be an understanding that learning spellings involve cognitive effort, and every effort to make sense of these abstract symbols needs to be supported. A better understanding of the spelling complexity and effective teaching methodology and resources will provide improved literacy outcomes.


Edwards, V. and Corson, P. eds., 2013. Encyclopedia of language and education: Literacy (Vol. 2). Springer Science & Business Media.

Elce, V., Handjaras, G. and Bernardi, G., 2021. The language of dreams: application of linguistics-based approaches for the automated analysis of dream experiences. Clocks & Sleep3(3), pp.495-514.

Kress, G., 2005. Early spelling: From convention to creativity. Routledge.

Nevin, B., 2020. Language and thought as control of perception. In The interdisciplinary handbook of perceptual control theory (pp. 351-459). Academic Press.

Oplinger, J. (2020). An Introduction to Comparative Sociology. McFarland.


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